UNICEF chief asks for 'courage' in addressing findings on harassment, abuse

Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF. Photo by: Manuel Elias / U.N.

NEW YORK — UNICEF is undertaking structural changes to reform the “toxic” workplace culture an independent task force recently revealed. But there are still more questions than answers on how UNICEF can become more equitable and supportive, UNICEF management said during a recent global town hall meeting.

“We cannot condone nor ignore bad behavior. It cannot creep into our culture. This is the time we need to build on this report, roll up our sleeves, and do something about it,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said during the internal one-and-a-half hour town hall. Devex obtained a livestream recording of the June 27 meeting.  

'Unacceptable workplace behaviors' at UNICEF, leaked report summary says

In interviews with Devex, former and present UNICEF staffers back claims that management culture needs to urgently be reformed.

“What we have to have is the courage to change … So, courage is what I am asking you all to think about. This means no bullying, no belittling, no malicious gossip. No harassment of any form. No discrimination. Not here, not here anymore,” Fore continued.

Fore introduced Geeta Narayan, UNICEF country representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, as the new principal adviser on culture change. Following the task force findings, UNICEF formally released 11 changes it will make to human resources, recruitment, and investigations work in 2019, spokesperson Christopher Tidey noted in response to Devex’s request for comment.

UNICEF plans to decentralize investigative teams, with internal and outside investigators handling claims of harassment and abuse. The agency is going to hire mediators for the Office of the United Nations Ombudsman and Mediation Services, invest in training for managers, and update the managerial recruitment process to prioritize people-management skills. It is also going to introduce a national staff development program to transition national staff to international careers.

Devex reported in June on the leaked internal task force report, which revealed a “results at all costs environment” where harassment and bullying are accepted as commonplace.

A few days after the report was released, Fore and multiple members of UNICEF’s senior management team held a town hall, where they fielded staffers’ and consultants’ anonymous questions. In many cases, they said, UNICEF is still considering how to handle some of the tougher challenges embedded in the workplace.

During the event, one shared query on a projector screen read: “Change begins at the top. How does the ED begin to ensure that there are visible consequences for abusive behavior?”

“This is a puzzle. We try so hard to be respectful of individuals and their privacy that sometimes we are not as visible,” Fore replied. “We do not communicate on what we are doing. We are finding our way and we are going to make lots of mistakes on this one and hopefully we are going to have lots of successes on it, but I know it is something that we need to do better. I actually do not have the answer to this one, but we are really, really trying hard.”

Questions also centered on valuing young staffers and relocating senior staff to another office after they are accused of harassment.

In response to a question that probed into why consultants are often performing staff duties, Hannan Sulieman, deputy executive director of management, said: “We know there are consultants performing staff functions. We will do what we can do to get the data. But regardless of getting the data, we already have consultants doing staff functions and we do not need to wait for the data.”

Debrework Zewdie, former director of the World Bank’s global HIV/AIDS program and a co-chair of the task force, cautioned that UNICEF management will not have immediate answers.

“It is a fundamental change from top to bottom. It is not fair to ask questions about how they are going to do it now. That is exactly why they are bringing on a change management team to look at this in a holistic manner,” Zewdie said.

One staffer based in the field, however, questioned the long-term impact of the report and the town hall in an interview with Devex following the event. Formal changes, like introducing more flexible working hours, are unlikely to solve cultural patterns, such as a prevalence of cliques, the staffer said.  

“If the system is driven by these informal networks, it doesn't really make a difference,” said the staffer, who wished to remain anonymous for career security reasons.

“There was a lot of disappointment with the town hall meeting, especially since a lot of the questions were not answered,” the staffer continued. “Someone should have taken responsibility and said, ‘We understand something went wrong here.’ And nobody did this.”

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.